p o e m s k a t h e r i n e e. y ou n g
If I ever get back, the first thing I shall do is go and see
the French [paintings].
— Osip Mandelstam in exile
Vtoraya rechka (“Second Little Stream”) is the transit
camp where Mandelstam is believed to have perished.
I remember his vermilion, color
with the grandest name. It tasted of tree
trunks, a work blouse, tang of grapes harvesting
in the vineyards of Arles. He captured the sun
and hung it, toasted gold like blini
hot and hot from the stove, to wester there
beyond the fields. If I ever get back,
though the path may lie through the transit camps,
through Vtoraya rechka, misbegotten
little stream. . . . Pity, instead, the man who
surveyed this spot, doggedly reducing
the great East to a chart, chilly fingers
inscribing, there, “First Little Stream” and, there,
“Third Little Stream” — equally prosaic
names for the places they send men to die.
Understand this: there is no other road,
no roundabout crossing, no safer way.
There is Death, too, in that sunset— but not
yet. On the wet-black walk, chalk soil and rain
conspire to trace upon the pavement
the fragile antonym of a leaf.
. . . And I prepared to swim, and floated on the arc
Of unbeginning journeys.
— Osip Mandelstam, Voronezh, 1937
M would invite me to stroll in imagination with him
round the Baptistery in Florence. . . .
— Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope
A silence falls, sweeping the swells,
schooling the hollows and velvet
hills, the cypress stands, the empty
road to a place that is not — yet —
Canaro. Same old moon, same stars,
give or take a planet or two.
“Due ore!” wails a woman
who asked a man who had talked to
the conductor. Due ore —
as if all Eternity were
quicker or more certain than
the homebound train’s arrival at last.
All travel’s exile, the shedding
of self, a losing and finding,
the possessing of new things. Past
is present — in gondola rides
through fetid canals, light, water,
air shared with Campanile loons
proclaiming “Republic!” too late,
or too soon — in encounters with
selves left standing at the crossroads,
with ghosts asking after Dante
in accents unknown to the shades
who frequent the Baptistery….
Headlights at the crossing. No fear,
no regret, no yearning keener
than the one that blooms as the night
train passes, ripe moon throbbing through
the sheep-foul fields, the olive groves,
the Akrons of the soul, through Voronezh.
May 13, 1934
I used to have a book on extinct birds and, looking at it,
I suddenly had the thought that all my friends and
acquaintances were nothing more than the last members
of a dying species. I showed M a picture of a couple of
extinct parakeets, and he thought they looked very much like us.
— Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope
Above the table, a circle of light:
the clink of spoons on borrowed plates. An egg
scavenged for Anna nestles in its bowl.
Shoulders shrug, stiffen, brace back the night.
Anna has come at M’s request. She smells
of cigarettes, of damp wool, of comfort.
Someone calls M to the telephone: the line
clicks, clicks, disconnects. He listens, waits,
“No one there,” he says. Nadya pours tea,
thinks “How long can this last?” Her hand shakes as
she tips up the pot, spilling fragrant drops
onto the photo of Anna’s son, who
smiles sweetly up at her, like the ghost of
past lovers: M’s, or Anna’s, or her own,
all mingling together on this night
when the jackboots of strangers will trample
the secrets of three lives. The talk crawls on:
M tells again why he slapped Alexei
Tolstoy’s face, someone starts reciting lines
from Polonski. Nadya yawns, follows
Anna to the kitchen, measures out time
by the smoke entering and exiting
her lungs: breathe, breathe, breathe. At one comes the sharp,
explicit knock. She rises, sits back down.
The age will shout itself out.
—Osip Mandelstam, On Poetry
(Academia, Leningrad: 1928)
That was a time when women stood
on public squares trading
their last treasures to pay for food.
Some survived by raiding
the trash cans in the courtyard; once
I saw two women fight
for my table scraps, spitting and
yowling with all their might.
December rained sulfur and snow.
The consignment shops sold
the bric-a-brac left by dead men:
the tea sets, medals, old
photos, African masks. I found
your book among the bins
of postcards and first editions;
someone had brought it in,
I have his name on a slip. Think:
just one printing, a few
hundred copies on the cheapest
stock — but it looks like new.
Why was it kept, those years, when Death
lurked in books, pictures, rhymes,
in letters from abroad, in thought
itself? And in those times,
when the poets were rounded up,
did someone really read your book,
were its points debated:
what you meant by “Hellenism”
(the text is underscored
here), how to value other “isms”
now long extinct? The word,
you write, is a utensil in
the master’s hand, the live
voice of times past, culture, moral
years gone, now, and Russia’s women
still howl down Moscow streets.
Fools appropriate your precious
Pushkin, poets still greet
the morning from their prison cells.
And yet the word still serves:
tool for nailing up, for hammering
down the universe.
Moscow, USSR, 1984
Summer bleeds through our fingers.
On our twig boat we ride downstream
dabbling hands in the water,
slippery green reeds brushing
our fingertips. We catch fish
in the evening; moist and crackling,
they turn black for our fire.
In Sardinia, a Russian ballerina
carves patterns in her veins,
pirouettes across her room,
wakes to white coats. “I am oh!-so-tired!”
she cries before she flits away.
There are paintings that crawl from cracks
in the wall, faces dwelling
in the mind, eyes seeping into
one’s own eyes, glittering evilly. . . .
When I have draped my veins on Sardinia,
danced vibrant among shrieking canvasses
and brought my boat in from the reeds,
I shall become a fish,
bones like these.